Frankenforts D.C.’s feared and forgotten Fort Circle Parks

Last year, on the night before Thanksgiving, Wanda Mathis was walking home from the Fort Totten Metro when she noticed a man trailing behind her at the intersection of 1st Place and Ingraham Street NW. The streetlight was out so Mathis, 43, picked up her pace. But before she could cross the street, she heard the footsteps close in and felt something sharp against her throat. Then she was dragged toward a wooded section of Fort Totten Park.

Fort Totten is part of a series of 68 fortifications that encircled the city during the Civil War. Collectively known as the Fort Circle Parks, they were built to protect the capital after the rout of federal forces at Manassas in 1861; their completion turned Washington into the most highly fortified city in the world at the time. The forts protected Washington exceedingly well—the city suffered no serious attacks (although, at Fort Stevens, Lincoln became the only sitting president to come under fire in wartime).

Today, however, many people shun the Fort Circle Parks because they fear coming under attack themselves. Some of the Fort Circle parks, such as Tenleytown’s Fort Reno, are well-used by the community. But over the past five years, Fort Totten has seen 23 violent crimes (including assaults and batteries), 7 property crimes (including vandalism, larceny, and burglary), and 30 weapon and drug violations. During the same period, Fort Dupont was the scene of 15 violent crimes, 37 property crimes, and 57 drug and weapons violations.

In June 2003, the three National Park Service (NPS) divisions that manage the forts—National Capital Parks East, Rock Creek Park, and the George Washington Parkway—introduced a $3 million plan to improve the forts’ physical conditions and their accessibility. But many residents who live around the forts feel that unless the plan does a better job of addressing their safety concerns, the parks are more likely to be desolate crime havens than hidden gems.

In its management plan for the parks, the NPS suggests building a new trail that would connect most of the sites, restoring the fortifications, and emphasizing the sites’ historic significance by renaming them the “Civil War Defenses of Washington.”

Julia Ward Howe’s line “I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps” in “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was inspired by the panoramic view of the Fort Circle afforded by her hotel room. But these days, the fortifications, which are known as “earthworks,” can be difficult to spot. Richard Metzinger, a landscape architect for the NPS, says he’s talked to people who’ve lived near one of the forts for years without knowing that it was there—let alone why it was built. “Unless you read up on some of the Civil War history, I don’t think you can really appreciate the enormity of the fortifications,” he says.

Many of Mathis’ neighbors say that they can save up to 15 minutes of walking time by taking a shortcut through the 42-acre park to Fort Totten Metro station. But they are afraid to, even during the daytime, and must walk a circuitous route or pay extra fare to go one stop on a bus. They also insist that, although the NPS has been aware of these pedestrian trails for a long time, it has never seriously attempted to improve the trail’s safety. In March, a group of 35 Fort Totten residents petitioned the NPS to address their safety issue. Citing a long series of robberies, rapes, and dead bodies, longtime resident Willie Jenkins says, “The safety issue basically is with proper lighting.”

But Stephen Syphax, chief of Resource Management at National Capital Parks East, believes that such urban safety improvements may be jarring for the parks’ woodland ambience. “Do you put lights along a woodland trail?...I don’t think most people would want us to cut down the trees and blame the burglaries on the trees,” he says.

Syphax has another reason for being skeptical about lighting the trails: The parks are also a rich trove of local wildlife, which he fears could be scared away by hordes of visitors. He suggests that the absence of human crowds may be a boon for the parks’ wildlife, which includes pink lady-slipper orchids, barn owls, and red-back salamanders.

In Fort Totten Park, though, the wildlife can include pit-bull carcasses. The Park Police believe that the organizers of dogfights left the remains of the losers in the woody groves last summer. And those groves were exactly where Mathis’ assailant tried to drag her at knife-point. After taking a few steps back, she reached up and grabbed the knife blade. As it sank into her bare hand, she lurched away from her attacker and began to run away from the park.

The park was once a place to run to. Following the Civil War, many African-Americans who were migrating north took temporary refuge in the forts. In some cases—such as at Fort Reno—they ended up staying; in this way, neighborhoods began forming around the areas. In 1902, the McMillan Plan, which shaped much of modern Washington, advanced the idea of a Fort Circle Drive—a continuous trail that would connect each of the sites. Although the federal government began acquiring land for this project in the ’30s, only a small portion was completed. “It looks like a broken necklace,” Metzinger says. In 1968, a study released by the District encouraged revamping the Fort Circle system. But few of its recommendations were ever implemented.

Over the next several decades, the parks fell into disrepair. Fearing crime, visitors began avoiding the parks; in turn, the empty parks started attracting more crime. Loretta Neumann, chair of the Parks and Environment subcommittee of the Committee of 100, a citizen-led planning organization, says that the lack of a single overseeing organization may be to blame. “I think [the NPS] shortchanged the Fort Circle Parks,” she says.

These days, according to Steve Coleman, head of Washington Parks and People, residents east of the river are “really afraid” of the lush Fort Circle Parks within their neighborhoods. “When we go out hiking, the police will be saying, don’t go in there....We can’t help you in there,” Coleman says.

Although the draft plan suggests that safety can be improved in the parks, NPS officials refer all specific security questions to the Park Police. The Fort Totten Metro and its environs are overseen by the Metropolitan Police Department, the Park Police, and the Metro Transit Police, who are planning to build a new police station there by the end of 2005. “There’s a lot of cross-jurisdictional issues,” says Lt. G. William Davis, the Park Police station commander who oversees Fort Totten. As if to prove his point, he notes that Mathis was on city property—the purview of the Metropolitan Transit Police—when she was attacked.

But Davis says that the Park Police have taken steps to improve safety. In 2000, they attempted to increase safety and lighting by placing a trailer with motion-activated lights in the middle of the park trail to serve as a police substation. According to Davis, it was rarely staffed and the lights were often broken. “The trailer there really did not meet expectations,” he says.

And it did nothing to help Mathis. Bleeding from her hand profusely, she ran into the Metro station, and the station manager called the police. An ambulance brought her to Providence Hospital, where doctors told her that she had severed more than a few tendons and nerves. Mathis, who has not yet recovered full use of her hand, hopes that along with the new cultural additions to the park, some safety ones will be added, as well. Recently, she revisited the site of her attack with a friend. Nearly six months after, the trailer remained empty and the streetlight still didn’t work. “It’s an ideal deathtrap for anyone criminally minded,” she says.CP

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